Baltimore speaker promotes fear of Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-proclaimed feminist who promotes fear of Islam, is set to speak in Baltimore Tuesday.

Our nation suffers from a polarizing public discourse around Islam, supported by an industry of fear and a media that almost exclusively presents Islam and Muslims in the context of violence. The pervasive fear of "all things Muslim" permits presidential candidates to suggest with little public outcry that American Muslims are a fifth column. It is in this toxic environment that Donald Trump can suggest banning all Muslim travel to the United States, and Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush can endorse religious discrimination when admitting refugees to our country.

Fear-mongering normalizes the image of the "sly and violent" Muslim. It is the first step in a process of dehumanization that allows us to excuse — and in time, to justify — rank bigotry. As history has repeatedly taught us, physical violence is born of rhetorical violence. It should not surprise us that, since the Nov. 13th terrorist attacks in Paris, there have been over 70 violent attacks against American Muslims in the United States and Canada by individuals who assign mass blame for the actions of a few.

On Nov. 19, a man threw Molotov cocktails at the Dar al Hijra mosque in Falls Church, Va., after he tried and failed to forcibly enter the facility.

On Thanksgiving Day, in Pittsburgh, a passenger questioned a Moroccan cab driver about his ethnicity and asked if he supports ISIS. After the driver denounced the terrorist group, the man entered his home, emerged with a rifle, and shot the driver in the back.

On Dec. 5, a food mart owner in Queens, NY was assaulted by a man screaming "Kill Muslims."

On Dec. 7, a bloody severed pig's head was left outside a mosque in Philadelphia.

And the list goes on. Anti-Muslim crimes increased 50 percent from 2009 to 2010, fully eight years after 9/11. In fact, hate crimes against American Muslims are five times more likely to occur today than before 9/11. Our American Muslim neighbors are fearful of attacks based on their religious identity, while other religious minorities fear being perceived as Muslims.

One of the pundits behind the industry of fear is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-proclaimed feminist and activist who was scheduled to speak at the Baltimore Speakers Series Tuesday, but has been bumped into next month by the blizzard. A darling of anti-Muslim hate groups like Act for America, Ms. Hirsi Ali has made a career out of painting all Muslims with one broad brush, refusing any nuanced discussion of the diversity inherent in a rich global community of nearly 2 billion people. Relying on the same all-or-nothing logic used by extremists, she describes Islam as "a destructive nihilistic cult of death" and believes that every Muslim is a ticking time bomb. She has called for war against Muslims worldwide and has urged our country to strip American Muslims of their civil rights.

Her work is consistently criticized for being simplistic, jingoistic and lacking in research-based evidence. In the New York Review of Books, Max Rodenbeck laments "her use of unsound terminology, a surprisingly shaky grasp of how Muslims actually practice their faith, and a questionable understanding of the history and political background not only of Islam, but of the world at large."

She has no traction among the women she purports to represent and fight for. On the contrary, Muslim feminists are concerned that her ill-founded interventions "strengthen racism rather than weaken sexism."

The fact that Ms. Hirsi Ali is consistently and enthusiastically given a platform to air her views reflects a troubling public complacency when the target of hate is Islam.

Thankfully, there is hope. Baltimore offers many opportunities for inter-religious encounters, friendship and learning that can help us challenge the culture of polarization. For example, on Dec. 6th, The Walters Art Museum held a panel discussion on Latino and Black Muslims, elevating voices marginalized in mainstream discourse on Islam. On Jan. 7th, The Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC) hosted Jewish and Muslim women for an evening of advocacy training at the Maryland State House. The Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) will hold a series of workshops and conversations throughout this year that interrogate the intersections of religion and justice in our city.

Only when we engage each other with knowledge, humility and compassion can we question our habits of mind and stand up to a political culture that seeks to divide rather than unite us.

Alison Kysia (akysia@icjs.org) is the educator, and Homayra Ziad (hziad@icjs.org) is the scholar of Islam, at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

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